Better than Fiction (non fiction)
from Thunder: Memoirs of Home
"The Hoover Boys" Part I
The youngest of a large house full of children and adolescents, my father’s mother was a rose on a bush with many other blooms. Handsome as her mulatto grandfather who owned much property and flourished in Battery at the same home place until he was in his nineties and was buried at the local church, she bristled quietly alongside the high porch, a couple of the posts holding onto old nails, long green thorny stems still deeply planted in beds that attended Battery visitors looking for a chicken sandwich and iced tea out of the fray of the Sunday revival heat.
Grandfather was one of them, though not from Battery—he lived northeast of the church. But he was athletic, ambitious, and good at walking, and he also knew a couple of the younger men in Battery including the father of the pesky red-skinned boys who lived for a time on Fern Lea down the long dirt gate from my father’s first house. Rather dashing and full of lively chords he had acquired in his local community about seven miles away, he went around to white farms and some colored homesteads to pick forgetfully at the banjo. Sometimes he would help with the wagon hay rides or set up the yard for dancing. Under a wide, sleepy locust tree, he would even entertain whiny evening workers with a story of witches and graveyards, pretty light-skinned maidens, and one particularly elusive Cherokee rose. He was the oldest of a great henhouse of stepsiblings who got more attention because they all knew and lived with their father. My grandfather was born before his mother was married and did not know his father.
He was respected as the oldest child although he was certainly a bit different, though not so much in appearance, and his mother held him in a special place no other could occupy. Partly because she thought his father was the local minister, though that she wouldn't tell, partly because he was easy as a revival tune to love. Her mother had been a slave who worshipped in the shed behind two privies, perhaps a great storyteller as well, sitting I imagine around a blazing stove where children of many mothers and hues were mesmerized and at night, mostly because they were also tired and finally clothed, were sweet as warm molasses. When freedom spread suddenly and the stove was cold, she taught her daughter forgiveness and also industry and her newly imagined definition of love. My grandfather knew it well, but he also longed for something he didn’t understand and didn't have. But mostly he chuckled and laughed and found through some desire for meaning an interest in ragtime, this and his ability to use his hands with innovation around his mother and stepfather’s small, productive farm.
Like the music, he was somewhat of a hotshot and risk-taker, though not so aware both sought new strings and gadgets, people, and also work, which sometimes took him on extended stays to Maryland and neighboring areas in the north--the shipyards with their low-strung, bristling skies. Hopeful somewhat, despite the long walk from Elevon, he came calling for the older sister he had met at a wedding party on one rather impromptu Saturday evening that would only occur once, but after some pains found out her daddy Clayborn (after whom my father and stepbrother were named) had other plans, or the older daughter herself had her eyes set on Philadelphia where the Model-T’s, electric trolleys, and ships were more plentiful because the men had more work and also because the city was friendly to all kinds of people, including colored. As it was just after the First World War, soldiers and civilians, even colored men and a few women, were buying cars and finding homes and sending off ships, and many businesses were rebounding.
Sitting without a sound in the Sunday shade before a screen door where she watched for insistent flies and wondering when the older sister would be back in town, the younger sister’s face lightened a little like a bloom before it opens, and despite his best intentions to ignore its singular shape and scent, he fiddled at his tie, talked rather cockily about baseball and the boys that were starting to throw a ball around under the large tree slightly over the slope where the pigs lay in the mud. She was too quiet and bothered with serving the cake to see him, but he kept coming by to play ball or to see the missing sister and one day when the chickens clucked and strutted out on high, fat-feathered legs and the pigs lay outdone by the mud and sun, she looked up again timidly in the cool darkness of a growing rose of Sharon and listened. But it was still her father who said, “Go get him a glass of tea, the boy look like a Hoover orphan,” and she did, and he unknotted his tie and kneaded his moist palms across his stiff trousers, accepting the beady glass scented with lemon. A little in the weedy outfield, he reared back his chuckling, rather restless, banjo heart and swallowed like a deacon stumbling into a long prayer.
A white-haired clergyman from up the county married them. Barely able to walk, he read scripture and said prayer, as she held a bouquet of peonies and wild flowers in the living room, her mouth and head and hair curled up complacently and tight to one side. Pushed up a little with shoulder pads, her flowered dress was rather tight at the hips and garnished with her grandmother’s smaller fur throw gently resting over her new Butterfly sleeves. Handsome and stocky as a prize fighter, grandfather stood up close to her, proud to have a girl so comely who didn’t look like a country bumpkin and would not talk back because she didn't know how. One of the children standing by in his short shorts and tall jumpy socks held the groom’s step-daddy’s double-breasted overcoat not so much that the groom needed it, another his rounded straw boater which he had won pitching pennies at the town carnival (he was nifty at winning things).
Over his soft bright white shirt, his tie was still a might dangly but full of the latest colors and lines, his dark pants plentiful and full across the crotch. His arms were strong and he wore no suit coat or vest. The crazy boy from along the long dusty gate had put a small dandelion in the coat and was holding the two sleeves over his thin arm near the mirror. Behind them, the punch was gleaming on the dining room buffet as one of the bride’s older brothers had stolen by the aging man with a cane to put some homemade moonshine in. Having saved millions from starvation, Hoover’s young face looked up admonishingly from a tattered magazine Cap'n Toliver had left, and the figurines and doilies of the adjoining sitting room were freshly white and clean as soap. My grandfather looked like a dressed up rooster, both fluorescent and stuffed but still the darkest animal in the house. This and the smell of cinnamon and sage from the pantry only made the orphan stand up a bit taller, and the light through the west window above the muddy pigs and the large white oak dancing quietly in the sparkles adorned his full brown face.
With new-found ambition and the blessings of their parents the newlyweds traveled briefly to Philadelphia and lived there where the groom could find work. Through most of 1926 the wife bloomed, and she also sewed and cooked and kept the bed sheets furled and warm till the first child arrived in the city of freedom, but it only took a few years and a few dollars saved for the new parents to realize the big house and the country were where they belonged. The quiet fringe of the little community only seven miles from the Rappahannock also held the promise of a new piece of land the new couple had been promised by the bride’s father. The wide, open country was also the place to grow more children with lots of cantaloupes and lima beans, where plows, properly guided, could sink their silver teeth in the earth, baseballs roll over thick-seeded, flowering grass like little planets and stars.
There under the old mulatto Baylor’s spreading tree (he had just passed in 1920) in the house full of rooms where his daughter and granddaughters kept the colorful menagerie of every heart’s desire, as happy as sparrows in a garden, they raised their first three children for several years. And like a made-up ditty that wouldn't stop playing, my father, a very large, healthy baby, along with his older sister Bernice, was born in that house as were several of his cousins, surrounded by many comforting faces and rooms and several splaying upward stairs that led to all the places a family keeps joyful secrets and sometimes tosses them from one room to another where they happily bounce from the sturdy floors and roll down wide landings and alcoves and porches out onto wide and ever more beautiful Battery lawns.
Somewhere around this time, perhaps a bit before, Grandfather purchased his only car. He had saved a little from work in the shipyards, a quick stint setting railroad ties, and northern corn work, and there was nothing he wanted more. He had a knack for things that wanted to work, and no one to speak of had a car, except maybe the owner of the large store at Caret (Mr. Doggins) where he stopped on Saturdays with his new white neighbor who also gave him work. Of course, cars had only started appearing in the area just before 1910, and most of the colored still didn’t have one, and worse than that, there were only so many fine wagons. Walking was the fashion (sometimes a horse or mule, rarely a carriage, or some make-shift gadget that moved, a sleigh)—to school when in the mood for learning, to work mostly in the fields and woods, to a social under a tree shimmering with twine string and paper. That day he and his schoolmates saw the first automobile from the schoolhouse yard at Lloyd’s somewhere around 1912 stayed on his mind and he had as much determination as any this side of the river to have one.
It was a 1929 Ford, some say a 25. No one remembers if it was new or used perhaps by some white man in Tappahannock who suddenly wanted something else or had died suddenly with tuberculosis (illness was rampant). It was a big boxy combine with high spread out wheels and was something to make you hold your breath with joy while full of trepidation. You had to take the water out of the engine at night, but the newlywed knew how to do that and more. When he drove it through Battery that first time after supper with his mother in Elevon, the gamblers and bootleggers and a little boy the size of a whippoorwill waved from a slouched tree and said, “Doff that ain’t old lady Louisa’s boy William from up the county!” He sat up high and pushed out his chest, bouncing like a prize guinea in a winner's basket. Two light-skinned girls with yellow hair crossing the field almost fell over a row of English peas. An old man limping up a tangled slope black as patching tar dropped the mule’s hay, and the mule, even darker, looked up and neighed. “Look,” said one of the girls whose breasts were coming in like melons, “That’s Willie,” and down on the ground the other, “Damn, if that ain't Sugie sitting up in there!”
He kept on sitting and Sugie kept on seeing. The road moved and quickly opened like a Jersey ferry gate and skirted past the long deep gulley beside the Level and suddenly Sugie’s home place far over the hill in the distance at the north and down further in a cool whir of the sudden bend the store nestled in an apple grove still moving pass. A whirling white ghost, my great-great grandfather rushed out of the store in his straight, tousled slightly graying locks and shook his long white apron free of peanut shells, nearly yelling but mostly coughing, “William, dhat geezer your’n?” As he liked to be the first, he held on covetously to a post, but my grandfather was already gone down past the white folks with the well up the rising and then making the curve where the colored servants still lived with their parent’s masters (relatives he often didn't speak of, the servants, maybe even the masters—it gets confusing). Bumping up and down like jack-in-the box's on the rough, nearly unpassable gate to their special wooded site that he and a couple of his friends had started to clear, they say they parked cattycorner across the sprawling, waiting land that rolled up from a silver spring birthing with yuccas and beautifully colored stones and less frequent arrowheads, and holy-moly, he got out and opened the door for Sugie looking like a Cherokee maiden coming home, though by then she was quite undone from all the air and sputtering and thin, pink feathers lifting themselves from her hat. “McKinley” rested there hot and heavy like some big new mechanical horse, tires big and clunky as a bomber, white-side walls, one uncle says, finely shining and so unafraid of any road they had to travel. “Whew, Lord,” Sugie exclaimed as though a quiet pony had both neighed and stalled, for she was often quiet as the summer rain that falls on the chunky green sweet stems of corn and drives itself down to the pithy, lithe fingers and roots that hold on gently to the wild and winded earth.
They took a picture there one Sunday after church, the land behind them rough, disheveled—bushes and weeds and saplings turning up and reaching out from the sides of the frame. Her mouth is like an arrow typically slanted to one side, which only family knows is her unique smile. The first posts and rafters of the house he would raise with his own hands while she brought water and souse resist the restless wind. He is bristling and dark and strappy like a young man who has both the North and South on his side, a banjo from some distant land tied to his back. They are close together like the bands of a new American flag no finger can pluck apart. A small poplar rises in the distance behind them against a singing sky. It is the one my grandfather and I have sat under or walked by a thousand times even when grandmother was braiding my aunts' hair and the sky grayed and I, their most recent child, insisted on remaining a dormant seed inside myself. Today a hundred feet or two in the sky, in storm or blight or drought it reaches into the heavens, and in my many rides to and from that home and even around these united territories and states and now through this nearly famishing illness, it grows ever upward and refuses to die.
Larry D. Giles has taught English and writing at his high school alma mater in Tappahannock and for the city of Richmond where he received two writing fellowships, teacher of the year, the prestigious REB Award for Teaching Excellence, and an educational leadership fellowship. His prose often centers on rural family life and multiculturalism along the Rappahannock in the 60’s and 70’s. His first book of poetry is currently in publication.
Part 2 of "The Hoover Boys" will be published in a future issue of Better Than Starbucks.